CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Mark Martin spent the past two years waffling on his future in racing. Now that he's found the perfect situation, he really doesn't want change his mind again.
But from his perch atop the Nextel Cup points standings, Martin knows sticking to the plan might be easier said than done.
"I'm very comfortable with what I've laid out, but I've learned never to say never," Martin said Monday. "I am the happiest man in racing right now with the best job in all of motorsports. That's where I am today."
What's at issue, though, is where Martin will be one month from now.
He's scheduled to spend March 23-25 in Lake City, Fla., racing late models with his son, Matt, and NASCAR newcomer Ricky Carmichael. That will be a world away from Bristol Motor Speedway, where the Nextel Cup Series is scheduled to roar on without Martin for the first time since Nov. 22, 1987 -- a streak of 621 consecutive races.
Martin has been trying for two years to ease his way out from behind the wheel. But racing is all he's ever known, and for as hard as it is to picture a NASCAR without Martin, it's even harder for him to imagine not having it in his life.
So he settled on a limited schedule with Ginn Racing of 23 races this season -- just enough to keep his competitive juices flowing, and not so many as to run the 48-year-old ragged.
Only problem is, Martin is off to the best start of his 25-year career.
He almost won the Daytona 500, losing at the line to Kevin Harvick in a controversial photo finish, and was fifth on Sunday at California Speedway to give him season-opening top-five finishes for the first time in his career. It's put Martin on top of the points standings for the first time since Sept. 22, 2002, and has Forced him to examine if he's really ready to get out of the race car.
When he climbed from behind the wheel on Sunday, he was adamant that he will not be behind the wheel next month at Bristol.
That hadn't changed on Monday, but Martin was a lot less convincing.
"I can, as of right now, say I am fine with things," Martin said. "I can't say how I will feel after Atlanta (on March 18). I know I don't want to run for the championship this year."
A four-time championship runner-up, Martin is considered the greatest driver to never win a title. He accepted long ago that he'll never hoist the Cup, and refuses to spend the end of his career fruitlessly chasing one.
"I am at peace with the hardware part, the trophy part, I didn't earn one and now I don't want to chase one," he said. "I want to move on to the next chapter."
That's how he was able to leave Roush Racing after 19 seasons and an intensely close relationship with owner Jack Roush. It led him to Ginn, a reborn team under new ownership that was willing to give Martin all the flexibility in the world to get him inside the shop.
Bobby Ginn, a lifelong NASCAR fan, is new to the business but committed to doing it right. So he purchased a fledgling second-tier race team last summer, and as part of his five-year plan, Ginn set out to hire the best people he could find.
It led him to Martin, who signed on to do a whole lot more besides driving the flagship No. 01 Chevrolet on a part-time basis.
"We understood going in that we couldn't win the championship with Mark Martin because he was going to run a limited schedule," Ginn said. "That was fine because his value to me goes far beyond the race track. He's a mentor, he helps the crews, he helps our shop and our development program.
"His value to me is getting information from one of the all-time greats."
OK, but aren't you going to try to talk him into making a run at the championship?
"Absolutely not," Ginn said. "A deal is a deal. We will be fine with whatever Mark decides and we won't pressure him to do anything."
Ginn's gut feeling is that Martin will stick to the partial schedule. Others aren't so sure and Martin doesn't blame them for being skeptical.
"There will be lots of speculation of what may come," Martin said. "Matt Kenseth, who is so tight that he squeaks when he walks, he's bet someone $200 that I'll run the full season."
Martin doesn't think he will, but admits that can change. And it has nothing to do with a championship.
It's all about winning right now, something he's come awfully close to doing twice so far this season. He was driving for the Wood Brothers and leading with five laps to go in Friday night's Truck Series race in California when he was bumped out of the way on a restart.
Martin didn't complain about it, though, and handled the defeat with the same dignity he used following the 500.
"The Wood Brothers, to see there stuff out front like it was in the '70s, that means something to me," Martin said. "That means more to me than a championship and is probably something only the gray haired fans can appreciate."
As long as Martin can compete for wins, he will always have difficulty walking away. It's why Kenseth's bet isn't easy money and why Martin can't emphatically say he will not run the full schedule.
Ultimately, though, Martin knows that sitting out Bristol will be the best thing for him because one way or the other, he'll finally find out if he can live without racing.
"I think after that it will be fairly clear to me what my future holds," Martin said. "If it bothers me to not be in the race, that's one thing. If I am watching the race and glad I am not in it, then that's another.
"When the race is over, I think I will know a little bit more about how this will go for me.